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Book Notes - The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Abridged)


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The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Abridged)

(excuse the bolded words as I could not easily unbold when I pasted it)

 

Time:  “Best Nonfiction book of the 20th century.”

 

It is about the Soviet Union’s Gulag Camps and everything from the initial arrest, to the torture 

To obtain confessions, transportation, life in the camps and even the revolts.  It does a wonderful job of chronicling the extreme evil of Communism under Lenin and then Stalin.

 

Solzhenitsyn spent many years in the Gulag Camps.  He was a Captain during WW2 and wrote some criticism of Stalin in a letter to a friend and they threw him in the Gulag for I think 10 years.  Millions were thrown in for really no reason at all.   Accusations were fabricated and people were thrown in.  People were put in the Gulag because: 

  1. They had a religion, 

  2. They said something bad about Stalin

  3. Said something bad about Communism.  

  4. Looked at someone the wrong way

  5. Were falsely accused by a neighbor, etc.

  6. Property owners

  7. Not considered poor peasants (highly subjective definition)

  8. Intellectuals

  9. Dissidents

  10. Purged party members

  11. Endless lists of nonsense reasons.

 

One of the great books that really expanded my views of the extremes of human nature.  

I found it to be a hard read because of the almost unimaginable evil that humans are capable of that he vividly lays out.  (I have not had that experience with holocaust books or other books).  So it took me extra time to read it and go thru it.  

 

Stuff in the book

  • “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

  • “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.  Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.”

  • “ Ideology - that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.”

  • You almost have to consider your life and the life of everyone you knew to be over when entering.

  • Time to think and one has patience in the Gulag and realize your own weakness and can therefore you can understand the weakness of others..

  • Some people were tortured by putting them in small dark boxes with thousand of bed bugs.  One would kill them off for hours then tire and they would suck a lot of blood from you and you would weaken.  The creativity of the torture was sickening.  

  • “But instead a world where some weep disconsolate tears and others dance to a lighthearted musical.”

  • “The price of cowardice will only be evil.”

  • Great stories of revolts where informers were killed and the camp members actually got freedom of speech.   Revolts and strikes showed the good of human groups against evil even when faced with extreme hardship.   Perhaps a reason for irrationality of man is to act as a group which lends them more power.  

  • After the Gulag people didn’t get depressed because their life afterwards was always better than the Gulag.  

  • A.S could somehow sense in his gut the informers and luckily never got caught this way.

  • The way it was described was essentially HELL.  It was just surreal at times. 

 

I don’t think anyone who is a Full Communist today deserves their opinion if they have not read this book and it is pretty amazing that anyone can be so delusional and stupid and promote the most evil force of the last century that killed ~100 million people.   Of course psychopathic rulers end up at the top often because they are total wolves, bold, devoid of empathy and end up consolidated power.  I have to wonder if brutal revolutionary leaders “sell” Communisms ideals to idealistic suckers just to gain even more absolute power, it seems that way.

 

 

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I read this book a long time ago. It was quite a popular read in the 70's and I think I read it in the 80's. it struck a cord with many people who remember the Nazi's as there was a lot similarities. I think it does rhyme with George Orwell's work. All these books should be studied in schools more.

 

One interesting thing I remember is that some randomness in punishment is a feature, not a bug in Stalinism. The reason was that this randomness did  strike fear in everyone, because literally anyone was breaking some rules somewhere in the Soviet Union (as well as any totalitarian regime). That was one of ways Stalinism was keeping control.

 

The other dictators after that were totalitarian too but never kept the same randomness and fear in the populace than Stalin did.

Edited by Spekulatius
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I spent my childhood in the former USSR, and read this book and also books by Varlam Shalamov.   It is a great book in my opinion, and yes, communism is always terrifying, it's just the degree varies between Stalin and Brezhnev, but it is just different degrees of hell.

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On 12/9/2021 at 7:03 PM, Dinar said:

I spent my childhood in the former USSR, and read this book and also books by Varlam Shalamov.   It is a great book in my opinion, and yes, communism is always terrifying, it's just the degree varies between Stalin and Brezhnev, but it is just different degrees of hell.

I (and many others) would be curious what your childhood was like and if you or your parents felt like you were in a prison?

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44 minutes ago, LongHaul said:

This description of Communism by National Geographic is for middle schoolers.  Any thoughts?

 

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/communism/

 

 

Ball faced lies.  Marx's utopia was not achieved not because there was not a global revolution.  Marxism failed because it violates human nature and logic.  What is the point of work if there is no reward?  How do you allocate scarce resources?  They whitewash/ignore the evils of communism and its consequences even where mass murder was not committed.  They conveniently forget that every communist country had massive repression and most had mass executions that would make Nazis pale in comparison.  Communists killed more people than Nazis did.  The reason that communism is required on a global scale is because people flee communist countries at the earliest opportunity.  So if the entire world is communist, there is nowhere to flee.   The basic tenet of Marxism is to each according to his needs and from each according to his abilities.  Think about how that would work in practice?  Everyone or a lot of people want caviar, lobster, furs, jewelry and living next to Central Park in a five bedroom apartment overlooking the park so how do you allocate the scarce resources?  If people live the same regardless of how hard and well they work, what is the incentive to work?  They do not explain the consequences of no reward for differential labor, and consequences for abolition of private property.  In the USSR, there was an article in the penal code that would allow authorities to jail you for not working, or for being homeless, etc...  

Edited by Dinar
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21 minutes ago, LongHaul said:

I (and many others) would be curious what your childhood was like and if you or your parents felt like you were in a prison?

 

21 minutes ago, LongHaul said:

I (and many others) would be curious what your childhood was like and if you or your parents felt like you were in a prison?

I was lucky since: a) I was born in the 1970s rather than when Stalin was running the country; b) I was an only child of very hard working and accomplished parents - my mother ran an IT department for a global exporter and had 40 people reporting to her, and yet she had to work another job as well to make ends meet; my father worked two jobs.  I was pretty sheltered, although when one reads Balzac and Shakespeare and Dickens at the age of 10 and sees how the poor in their stories lived and then compare it to your life in the USSR, well, the comparison was not in favor of the USSR.  

 

The shops were empty - literally (no cheese, no meat, no fish, no sausages, no clothing, no books, no toilet paper).   You could not really say anything anti-government, and these days the atmosphere on American campuses and large corporations with political correctness is similar.  You do not get arrested in the US for saying certain things, yet, but...  Crime was pretty bad - to survive most people broke laws, and it is a slippery slope from stealing from the government to stealing from other people, to robbery, murder. Corruption was insane and everywhere.  

 

No respect for human life, we were all cannon fodder for the glories of communism.  Afghan war was good example.  

 

My grandfather was jailed for being a Latin spy - whatever that means in the early 1930s.  He was lucky, he was released after seven months in jail and immediately left for the other side of the USSR.  

 

Adults felt it much more than I did, I was twelve when I left the workers's paradise.   Had I been born 50 years earlier, would have been orders of magnitude worse.  Stalin's purges and orchestrated starvation in Ukraine killed tens of millions.  

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55 minutes ago, LongHaul said:

This description of Communism by National Geographic is for middle schoolers.  Any thoughts?

 

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/communism/

 

 

 

I fixed it:

 

creating a classless society in which everyone shares the benefits of labor miseries and the state controls all property and wealth.

 

 

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” —House of Commons, 22 October 1945.

 

https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/socialism-is-the-philosophy-of-failure-winston-churchill/

 

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Thanks for posting everyone.

 

Really enjoyed your story Dinar.  Totally agree - Communism denies human nature.  And there was still greed in the Communist countries - for power and money and 

materialism - however it is often corruptly taken vs earned.    As I get older I realize more and more that underpinning human behaviour is human nature - and it seems to be like hard coded into us.

 

National Geographic.   Agreed - deceit through not disclosing the truth.  I think the reason we haven't seen or heard more on the evils of Communism is that the left sympathizes or agrees with it (to an extent) so 100 million dead from Communism and the extreme repression is not taught or known more.   The young idealist Communists scare me actually.   The consequences are so severe.

I don't think anyone deserves to hold their Communist opinion if they have a not read a few books on the evils of Communism - North Korea, USSR, etc.  

 

 

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On 12/13/2021 at 3:48 PM, Dinar said:

Ball faced lies.  Marx's utopia was not achieved not because there was not a global revolution.  Marxism failed because it violates human nature and logic.  

 

Yep that is very true. In an ideal world, communism might work but in a real world it never did and it want for the lack of trying.

 

I was born in West Germany and have an anecdote to share about empty stores. When I was 18, we did a class trip to East Germany in the early 80's. I recall we were walking the show off shopping street in Leipzig. Lot's of stores there but not much to sell.

 

All of a sudden, we saw a small line forming in front a store about 100 meters in front of us. Then people started to rush towards it. A women next to us yelled " A line, a line there must be something to sell!" before she took off as well.

 

Except nobody could tell what was selling there, if anything at all.

 

We later met some East German folks over some beers later and they told us this happens all the time and rushes set in where even the silliest items (soap bars etc)  periodically sell out because people think they may get the last of it. Imagine living with toilet paper shortages etc like in March/April 2020 all your life.

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I'm going to have to read this.  One book I read a few months ago that is on a similar topic is "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West" by Blaine Harden.  It is the life story of a man who was born in a North Korean prison camp and escaped. He is one of the few people to ever have escaped both the camps and North Korea.  It is horrific the way they are forced to live.

 

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This is a great book, Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky should be read by everyone. Audio book really helps sink in their thoughts as the reading comprehension can be difficult at times. 

 

Jordan Peterson (modern day politics aside) has some really good lectures from years ago 2014 on both of authors and the USSR from a sociology/psychology standpoint. Really helps bring to light some other characteristics and depth of their writing. They are worth a listen if you get a free hour. 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8u3aTURVEC8

 

 

@Spekulatius This is what I was talking about from the other thread regarding his work. 

 

 

Edited by Castanza
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11 minutes ago, Castanza said:

Jordan Peterson (modern day politics aside) has some really good lectures from years ago 2014 on both of authors and the USSR from a sociology/psychology standpoint. Really helps bring to light some other characteristics and depth of their writing. They are worth a listen if you get a free hour. 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8u3aTURVEC8

 

 

@Spekulatius This is what I was talking about from the other thread regarding his work. 

 

Unfortunately he's been canceled by the left.  You are not allowed to say that he has ever done anything or said anything in his entire life that has any value whatsoever in any way.  When someone is cancelled they are cancelled entirely.

 

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1 minute ago, rkbabang said:

 

 

Unfortunately he's been canceled by the left.  You are not allowed to say that he has ever done anything or said anything in his entire life that has any value whatsoever in any way.  When someone is cancelled they are cancelled entirely.

 

It’s a shame since he has over 300+ lectures free online from pre Trump era. It’s really silly to dismiss great thinkers over their entirety simply because of some recent opinion you disagree with. His lecture topics are very interesting and offer fresh/different perspectives. Plus he give a lot of references to other works/individuals which are also very good. 
 

recently read “Ordinary Men” which is a damn good book. 
 

Hell I’m sure there are things Solzhenitsyn has done and said that we would disagree with today. But we don’t disregard his writing. 

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On 12/13/2021 at 4:02 PM, Dinar said:

 

I was lucky since: a) I was born in the 1970s rather than when Stalin was running the country; b) I was an only child of very hard working and accomplished parents - my mother ran an IT department for a global exporter and had 40 people reporting to her, and yet she had to work another job as well to make ends meet; my father worked two jobs.  I was pretty sheltered, although when one reads Balzac and Shakespeare and Dickens at the age of 10 and sees how the poor in their stories lived and then compare it to your life in the USSR, well, the comparison was not in favor of the USSR.  

 

The shops were empty - literally (no cheese, no meat, no fish, no sausages, no clothing, no books, no toilet paper).   You could not really say anything anti-government, and these days the atmosphere on American campuses and large corporations with political correctness is similar.  You do not get arrested in the US for saying certain things, yet, but...  Crime was pretty bad - to survive most people broke laws, and it is a slippery slope from stealing from the government to stealing from other people, to robbery, murder. Corruption was insane and everywhere.  

 

No respect for human life, we were all cannon fodder for the glories of communism.  Afghan war was good example.  

 

My grandfather was jailed for being a Latin spy - whatever that means in the early 1930s.  He was lucky, he was released after seven months in jail and immediately left for the other side of the USSR.  

 

Adults felt it much more than I did, I was twelve when I left the workers's paradise.   Had I been born 50 years earlier, would have been orders of magnitude worse.  Stalin's purges and orchestrated starvation in Ukraine killed tens of millions.  

I, too, was born in USSR in the early 80s and I can attest to many of these things. My opinions has been slowly evolving (not in a very favorable direction), especially as I look back. I read Solzhenitsyn few years after USSR collapsed and didn't really appreciate what I was reading. I have since re-read his works in the US and always have bits and pieces that always float to the top of the memory heap. I now fully appreciate how corruption was endemic and Government was beyond f*ed up. I got few stories that evolved from a fond memory to realization that things weren't great.

 

I thought I had a great childhood, was free to do a lot, had (relatively) successful parents. I grew up in Uzbekistan so fruit/vegetables were not an issue but all other things were. Toilet paper was a commodity, meat, clothing, shoes!!!! were a luxury. COVID really reminded me of a few things. Who knew my childhood training of waiting in line (I always loved being in a milk or breadline because of the gossip) and buying bulk would come in handy. My wife was looking at it me like "wtf are you doing" but that opinion changed as Costco ran out of toilet paper and paper towels. 

 

My mom was an engineer at an electric factory so I got to spend a lot of time in the warehouse counting nuts, bolts, and other components. Whenever we would go to a local bazaar we would run into my mother's coworkers selling stuff. I always thought it was curious that my mom's factory had electric components and these individuals were selling these same components...when I was about 12, I figured it out.

 

One thing that goes somewhat unnoticed is the forced labor component of the USSR (this perpetuated well beyond the USSR). Between ages of 5-8, every April/May my mom's factory would organize these buses to go and pick cotton. I was little so I was pumped being outside with other kids and we would race each other collecting cotton. I always wondered why the adults were so slow at gathering it. It's obvious now. There were other things, like cleaning school grounds, collecting paper, collecting metal. I never disliked it because it was me hanging out with my friends but in retrospect it doesn't look great. 

 

Dinar reminded me of the cannon fodder. Army was cannon fodder (it was a common russian phrase too, pushechnoe myaso). My dad was an army surgeon stationed in Herat, Kunduz, and later Termez during Afghan war. I still remember asking him to tell me the difference between basmachi (afghan uprising of 1930s) and dushmani (the 80s iteration of the rebels). I didn't have to worry about the army service in Afghanistan because USSR withdrew already but both my parents would make sure I studied hard and gave bribes (I had to carry these gifts to school too!) to my teachers just in case I didn't score well. 

 

Drugs and alcohol consumption was out of this world. Everyone would community shame these individuals. Alcohol consumption was at every level. Drug consumption would frequently be amongst the young people, often coming back from Afghanistan. 

 

The cancel culture is scary and very reminiscent of some of the Dostoevsky's writing. Sure, you won't go to prison for holding an opposing opinion but you can easily be shut out of the job. I noticed many of my staff now self sensor themselves. The days of open fora have disappeared. I live in DC so all we have is very loud hell-bent liberal (what I hope) minority. I've been to places where the opposite is true. I sure hope that the silent majority still hasn't lost common sense and maintains it's centrist POV. 

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4 hours ago, lnofeisone said:

I, too, was born in USSR in the early 80s and I can attest to many of these things. My opinions has been slowly evolving (not in a very favorable direction), especially as I look back. I read Solzhenitsyn few years after USSR collapsed and didn't really appreciate what I was reading. I have since re-read his works in the US and always have bits and pieces that always float to the top of the memory heap. I now fully appreciate how corruption was endemic and Government was beyond f*ed up. I got few stories that evolved from a fond memory to realization that things weren't great.

 

I thought I had a great childhood, was free to do a lot, had (relatively) successful parents. I grew up in Uzbekistan so fruit/vegetables were not an issue but all other things were. Toilet paper was a commodity, meat, clothing, shoes!!!! were a luxury. COVID really reminded me of a few things. Who knew my childhood training of waiting in line (I always loved being in a milk or breadline because of the gossip) and buying bulk would come in handy. My wife was looking at it me like "wtf are you doing" but that opinion changed as Costco ran out of toilet paper and paper towels. 

 

My mom was an engineer at an electric factory so I got to spend a lot of time in the warehouse counting nuts, bolts, and other components. Whenever we would go to a local bazaar we would run into my mother's coworkers selling stuff. I always thought it was curious that my mom's factory had electric components and these individuals were selling these same components...when I was about 12, I figured it out.

 

One thing that goes somewhat unnoticed is the forced labor component of the USSR (this perpetuated well beyond the USSR). Between ages of 5-8, every April/May my mom's factory would organize these buses to go and pick cotton. I was little so I was pumped being outside with other kids and we would race each other collecting cotton. I always wondered why the adults were so slow at gathering it. It's obvious now. There were other things, like cleaning school grounds, collecting paper, collecting metal. I never disliked it because it was me hanging out with my friends but in retrospect it doesn't look great. 

 

Dinar reminded me of the cannon fodder. Army was cannon fodder (it was a common russian phrase too, pushechnoe myaso). My dad was an army surgeon stationed in Herat, Kunduz, and later Termez during Afghan war. I still remember asking him to tell me the difference between basmachi (afghan uprising of 1930s) and dushmani (the 80s iteration of the rebels). I didn't have to worry about the army service in Afghanistan because USSR withdrew already but both my parents would make sure I studied hard and gave bribes (I had to carry these gifts to school too!) to my teachers just in case I didn't score well. 

 

Drugs and alcohol consumption was out of this world. Everyone would community shame these individuals. Alcohol consumption was at every level. Drug consumption would frequently be amongst the young people, often coming back from Afghanistan. 

 

The cancel culture is scary and very reminiscent of some of the Dostoevsky's writing. Sure, you won't go to prison for holding an opposing opinion but you can easily be shut out of the job. I noticed many of my staff now self sensor themselves. The days of open fora have disappeared. I live in DC so all we have is very loud hell-bent liberal (what I hope) minority. I've been to places where the opposite is true. I sure hope that the silent majority still hasn't lost common sense and maintains it's centrist POV. 

Assalam aleikum!  When you are in NYC, let me know, I would love to grab a drink.  I am older than you are - born in the late 70s, but still remember trips with my grandfather to the Alai bazari.  I grew up in Tashkent, lived near the tractor factor - old Tashmi.  You?

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On 12/23/2021 at 11:43 AM, rkbabang said:

 

 

Unfortunately he's been canceled by the left.  You are not allowed to say that he has ever done anything or said anything in his entire life that has any value whatsoever in any way.  When someone is cancelled they are cancelled entirely.

 

LOL, this is the crackerjack drug junky who gives advice on how to live your live. Apparently he also tries to cancel the left, so no surprise the left does try the same to him.  Basically, he states he fights against identity politics and then he participates in identity politics warfare himself. Here is his latest:

https://www.newsweek.com/jordan-peterson-refuses-justin-trudeaus-covid-booster-plea-youd-have-kill-me-first-1663204

 

I have no idea about his lectures on this topic. I can only suggest to read the original and form your own opinion.  Solzhenitsyns books speak quite well for themselves. 

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 12/28/2021 at 7:49 PM, Spekulatius said:

LOL, this is the crackerjack drug junky who gives advice on how to live your live. Apparently he also tries to cancel the left, so no surprise the left does try the same to him.  Basically, he states he fights against identity politics and then he participates in identity politics warfare himself. Here is his latest:

https://www.newsweek.com/jordan-peterson-refuses-justin-trudeaus-covid-booster-plea-youd-have-kill-me-first-1663204

 

I have no idea about his lectures on this topic. I can only suggest to read the original and form your own opinion.  Solzhenitsyns books speak quite well for themselves. 

I'm really not a Peterson fan but I'm still not buying what you are saying. The link you list is him refusing to have his constitutional rights violated. How does that relate to cancel culture?

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On 1/9/2022 at 10:02 AM, no_free_lunch said:

I'm really not a Peterson fan but I'm still not buying what you are saying. The link you list is him refusing to have his constitutional rights violated. How does that relate to cancel culture?

The tweet is just an example how unnecessary polarizing he is.

 

As for cancel culture, I defer to the following excerpt from wikipedia (with a link):

image.thumb.png.a0f2a0a93b06d82010226cb87054bbfb.png

 

So if he suggest to defund women's studies, he uses the same language and method that the left uses (defunding the police BS etc ). I don't think it's a good way to go about matters that one personally disagrees with.

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To get this back on topic,  and I recall this only loosely from memory , it is interesting to compare the "Archipel Gulag" with another book that is only available in German - "Der SS Staat" from Eugen Kogon.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugen_Kogon

 

Similar to how the Archipel Gulag describes how Stalin's system worked, the SS Staat describes how the German NAZI/SS system with their concentration camp network worked.

 

When you read both, you realize there are a lot of similarities and I would in fact state that Stalin and Hitler had more in common than they were apart even though they later ended up fighting each other. Same methods different goals, but the goals didn't really matter much in the end.

Now you can circle back to Orwell's Animal farm

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